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Alice waited a day to hear from Gary or to consider her options, then she gathered up Andrew in his room, and bribed him with a trip to Chaz the Cheezer, an arcade-and-pizza joint. Andrew had no special affinity for the place, which Alice knew, but this was a symbolic transaction: please come with me and don’t make a fuss. They did not go straight to the garage level, though. They stopped by the apartment of the homeowners’ association president, Frank Brandenburger, to let him know about the visitors they had received. He was a short, tubby balding man, prone to undershirts right out of a New York crime drama, but otherwise a priggish gentleman who preferred other gentlemen and who was, for whatever reasons, unable to cement a relationship with anyone. Sure, he was the one who pointed the FCC folks up Alice’s way, he admitted with something like innocence. Thanks a lot. But that wasn’t the point. She told him that she and Andrew were going out but would be back early. Expect her back early.

They went downstairs and outside the building. They circumnavigated the building and walked into the garage from the street ramp. Andrew didn’t know what to make of it but couldn’t articulate why this was bothering him. Alice walked with the kind of conviction she carried when she went to visit her ex- husband and Andrew’s father. They got in the car and she locked the doors before starting the engine. She looked in the rearview mirror: Andrew had picked up a comic book he had left in the car, and was utterly oblivious. I imagine that that moment was very similar to Gary’s, a sensation of utter loneliness in the face of a life-altering challenge.

Chaz’s was a gimmick to get to a phone. There wasn’t a public phone anywhere inside, to Alice’s chagrin, but she asked the cashier with such self-assurance that he had to conclude it was an emergency. “We’re not allowed… No private calls… If my manager caught me… I wish I could…” None of them held against her desperate insistence. She dialed Gary’s and got the expected answering machine: “Gary, hi, this is Alice. I just wanted to tell you something about the monitor you picked up from our apartment. I think you were going to donate it to a charity, but someone from the Federal Communications Commission came by this evening and said that he would like to see it. I didn’t tell him your name because I know you don’t like being disturbed. Apparently whatever made it explode affected television reception in our area. Hope you’re well.” She hung up and thanked the cashier, who looked away while he nodded but then allowed himself a much longer than appropriate stare at the woman as she walked away.

Gary, meanwhile, was dialing his new prepaid cell phone, purchased with cash and an assumed name. He debated whether it was better or worse to leave a message for Bluthe, who would still be sulking but might be persuaded to call back to rub Gary’s face in the shit he was in. “Bluthe, you old sea-dog fart,” he started off, “this is your one-time acquaintance Beauregard.” That was the fictitious name that Bluthe had bestowed on Gary’s grandmother in his story about her psychotic visions. “I know you have caller ID. Call me back on this number. Bye.”

He also called the office of his motel. “Look, there was some inadvertent damage to the room.” Uh-hum, he heard vaguely from the other end. “I wanted you to know that I’ll pay for the bed cover and any repainting.” The manager jumped in then, detailed the other costs and summed up: “Eight hundred twenty-eight dollars and thirty-nine cents. I already ran it through on your credit card.” Well thanks a bundle, you old shit. “I’m coming back tonight.” “The hell you are,” said the manager, “I’ve changed the lock. I’m refunding the weekly rate and I’ll charge you two nights.” Gary just clicked off.

That’s when he called home to listen to his answering machine, standing on a corner, looking for all the world like someone waiting for a bus or a handout. Checking his messages was not something he did often — like there was ever anything interesting — but he did half expect to hear another message from Alice, to the effect that, thanks, had time to reconsider, don’t care whether you exist or not, auf Wiedersehen. He listened to the message twice to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating on oracle whiskey.

He loitered on the strip-malled corner, conscious of doing no wrong, maybe even belonging as much as any consumer, part of the tribe. That gave him a moment of confidence-building repose. Okay, now what. Alice had made clear that he should not be found with the monitor, but was that the real point? Did she believe that he was in danger? Was that why she withheld his name? Was this the clean-up crew? He could hear from the background that Alice was probably not at home. That meant she was afraid, either to implicate him or to make herself an accessory.

How the hell did they find Alice?

His house was an evidentiary hot zone. He had to get home and get rid of the evidence. The monitor? Would it seem more innocent to let them take it, or to get rid of it altogether? They would expect that he would have donated it, but it would be traceable then. Or he could say that he just threw it away? But they might have a way to find it in the dump. Why not just give it to them? Then he realized that this whole line of self-questioning was beside the point. It didn’t matter whether they found the monitor. What mattered were the contents of his computer. The monitor was just incidental; the computer’s contents were evidence of conspiracy. He could imagine the expressions on their faces as they discovered the info-virus from Craig Phissure and his crew: the tightening of their jaws, the narrowing of eyes, maybe even some cracking of joints for effect.

He jogged back to his car, out of breath by the time he reached it, so much so that he leaned against it to gain his composure. He would have to stop to charge up the batteries with some fast food; his hands were still shaking, his arms burning. As he drove away from the curb, absorbed in his worries, he saw the government RV coming the other way. Yes, it passed him right by. Now you might find this a Hollywood moment, this ironic near miss, but in fact the RV was in a rote grid pattern, the antenna locked in a particular direction, and the operator was more concerned about data collection than about catching the mouse.

But Gary didn’t know that. He accelerated wildly and drove correspondingly, even swerved lanes before he realized how this was making him stand out, and he decelerated. He felt the adrenaline oozing, felt his mind clear, the edges of his vision sharpen, the tone of his muscles improve. He was so liberated from anxiety by this chemical energizing that he almost rammed the car in front of him when it stopped at a changed traffic light. His wheels squealed, the front drifted to the right; with more speed he might have toppled and slammed into the car in front of him upside down. He exhaled and tried, as a drunk might, to concentrate on what a normal person would do. He slowed exaggeratedly as he turned into Wendy’s.

Gary got a burger meal and headed home on his usual freeway route. Observed? I know the most of you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But let’s assume he got home unassailed. He went in, expecting an X-File working-over of every inch of his house. But it was all as he had left it. The message light still flashed on the answering machine. The dishes waited in the sink. The computer was blanked but still working — his account probably still logged in. He moved the mouse. The Blue Ball Black Void society website was cued up, with the cursor in the shape of a pointing hand, drawing eyes like the wag of an oblivious dog that had just ratted you out with its cloying bark.